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Chris Saliba reviews Scott McClellan's What Happened

What Happened, by Scott McClellan
Reviewed by Chris Saliba

Despite Scott McClellan being a Christian, a conservative Republican and, after all he'd experienced in the White House, someone who was still convinced of George W. Bush’s basic decency, I was in very broad agreement with most of the views expressed in What Happened.

McClellan describes the major woes of the current US political system as ‘the permanent campaign’. All political leaders conduct themselves as though they were in a state of permanent media, cultural and political warfare. Media cycles must be managed, everyone must stay on message, and leaders become so insulated that they actually start to believe as true their own spin. All politics becomes destructively partisan, with everything reduced to petty point scoring, when larger and more important issues loom, demanding serious attention.

The author sees this type of politics having reached its zenith under the eight years of the Clinton administration. McClellan supported George W. Bush because of his stated objective to move American politics away from this toxic style of politics. Bush had previously been Governor of Texas, and had proved in that position that he could be bi-partisan and work constructively with the Democrats to get good outcomes for the citizenry. (McClellan also notes that it was pretty much a part-time position, and this appealed to Bush.)

Yet to McClellan’s dismay, the more he experienced of the Bush administration, the more he realised they were merely solidifying the ‘permanent campaign’ – secrecy, culture wars, media manipulation became worse under Bush.

McClellan ends his book by calling for an end to this sort of politics, urging people to be more open minded and to at least talk to people with different views.

Beyond that, the book is filled with fascinating portraits of all the major players in the White House, the good, the bad and the ugly. McClellan strikes me as a reasonable and even-tempered observer of events, and so I trust what he has written.

People viewing George W. Bush’s administration from the outside are always tempted to view all the participants to be absolute rogues, but McClellan refreshingly insists most are very decent people trying to do what is right.

What McClellan writes about Bush will not be what most want to hear, but to me his observations had the ring of truth. He says that the real reason Bush invaded Iraq was because he genuinely believed he could create a democratic Middle East. The phoney reason, the author admits in hindsight, was weapons of mass destruction and talk of Saddam Hussein being a threat to world peace. Bush is in effect a fantasist, someone not living in the real world. He confuses imagination with reality.

Condi Rice is described as an expert PR practitioner, and not much more. Karl Rove is an out and out liar. And Dick Cheney is described as ‘the magic man’, someone who ‘never showed his cards and never disclosed how he made things happen’.

I also agreed wholeheartedly with McClellan’s disdain for our ‘gotcha’, point-scoring media culture. Everything is reduced down to petty points. Tiny things are blown up into scandals whereas the bigger issues should be the centre of our attention.

The Bush administration, by McClellan’s admission, tried to control the media too much and was not open and honest with the American people. One of the great lessons of What Happened is that lies and deception are in end completely self-defeating. The truth will always out. It’s just a matter of time.

Witness all the shenanigans around the Valerie Plame affair, the secret agent whose name was leaked. How much media time and energy was taken up and wasted in trying to get to the bottom of the whole affair. If only the White House had been up front at the beginning.

McClellan must in essence be an optimist when it comes to people’s personalities. He doesn’t really lay the faults of the Bush administration at Bush’s feet directly, but lays the blame also with the whole ‘permanent campaign’ culture that has arisen. Bush and company probably simply could not think outside of those parameters.

Laying all blame with George W. Bush could create problems of its own. If we continue to think all these problems are the result of one person, and expect they will all disappear when Bush leaves office, then we’re somewhat deluded again. The man may go, but the culture could remain. Look at how much money Barack Obama spent on advertising for his campaign.

I think this is a highly important book for those who want to see the tone and quality of politics improve, and also for those who want to see it become more democratic.

McClellan comes across as a bookish, intellectual, conservative gentleman who doesn’t succumb to hyperbole and the ingrained hate campaigns of politics. He continues to see those who enter politics doing so with honourable intentions. He points out a myriad of problems that need fixing, urges us to purge the anger out of politics, and insists the system can’t run effectively without honesty and transparency.

What Happened is a pleasant surprise and essential reading for any citizen interested in a politics we should all strive for, no matter what your political views are.

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